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NFC West Training Camp Preview
Courtesy of SI.com's Don Banks:
NFC West training-camp preview
'Zona gains an Edge, new-look Rams, avoiding jinxes
Team on the rise
The Cardinals landed four-time Pro Bowler Edgerrin James very early in the free-agency period.
Stop us if you've heard this one before, but the Arizona Cardinals are better. And, yes, we did say the same thing last year at this time, right before the Cardinals went out and hung up a 5-11 mark, dropping head coach Dennis Green's two-year record in the desert to 11-21. So what's so different about this year's Cardinals? For starters, there's a fresh air of anticipation for football season in Arizona thanks to the opening of a new stadium in suburban Phoenix and the free-agent signing of ex-Colts running back Edgerrin James. The signing of James has to boost the fortunes of a Cardinals running game that ranked dead last in the league in 2005, but what remains to be seen is whether Arizona did enough to improve its dreadful offensive-line play. The Cardinals drafted USC guard Deuce Lutui in the second round and he'll start right away. Arizona's passing game ranked first in the NFL last season and now quarterback-of-the-future Matt Leinart is on hand should starter Kurt Warner falter or turn fragile. The Cardinals can move the ball in the air, but they need to get much better in the red zone to have legitimate playoff hopes. Defensively, Arizona has great young talent, but it has yet to prove it can win a game on its own. Despite finishing in the top 10 two years running, it's time for coordinator Clancy Pendergast's unit to start distinguishing itself.
Team in transition
Every early indication says these are not your father's St. Louis Rams. The Greatest Show on Turf era is long gone, and if the Rams follow their new blueprint to success this season, no one will accuse them of being a finesse team anymore. Under new head coach Scott Linehan, St. Louis wants to get more physical on both sides of the ball and beef up a running attack that took a backseat to the high-flying passing game favored by former offensive coordinator and head coach Mike Martz. The Rams used the draft to focus on the tight end position, taking both Colorado's Joe Klopfenstein and USC's Dominique Byrd in the first three rounds, and while St. Louis will still throw the ball plenty, clearing the way for running back Steven Jackson will be the top priority on offense. The Rams made two key additions on defense: hiring former Saints head coach Jim Haslett as coordinator and signing Carolina outside linebacker Will Witherspoon, whose playmaking skills will be featured. Haslett, a noted tough guy, knows how to mold a swarming, aggressive unit, and he could be the perfect fit for the mentality St. Louis wants to adopt.
Coach in the spotlight
DENNIS GREEN, ARIZONA
When he took the Cardinals job in 2004, Green knew he was undertaking the most daunting coaching project in the NFL, but many of us believed he could reverse the fortunes of a franchise that had made only one trip to the playoffs (in 1998) since 1982. But so far, not so good, as Green has gone 6-10 and 5-11 in his first two years in Arizona. Compare that with his 10-year track record as Minnesota's head coach, where his Vikings missed the playoffs only twice in his entire tenure. With the Cardinals moving into their new stadium in Glendale this year, it's vital that Green's team build on the positive buzz surrounding that long-awaited milestone. When the usually fiscally conservative Cardinals spent big to lure Edgerrin James to town, it only increased the pressure on Green to win and win now.
Impact player in the making
Vernon Davis moved up dramatically in the draft after he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the scouting combine.
VERNON DAVIS, SAN FRANCISCO
With his size, speed and freakish NFL Combine workout results, the Maryland tight end inspired awe during the pre-draft scouting process and moved some to predict that he'll quickly become the NFC's version of San Diego's Antonio Gates. But new San Francisco offensive coordinator Norv Turner has another fine tight end at his disposal in Eric Johnson; look for both of them to get plenty of catches with the ***** employing a lot of two-tight-end sets. Davis' rookie season may not live up to his combine hype, but he's got a rare combination of skills and should quickly become San Francisco's most consistent playmaking threat.
Story to watch unfold
San Francisco rookie quarterback Alex Smith, the draft's top overall pick in 2005, had virtually no chance to succeed last season with a ***** offense almost devoid of talent. Predictably, he looked in way over his head, throwing only one touchdown compared with 11 interceptions with a lowly 40.8 QB rating. But this year he's got veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner to help develop him and call the plays, and he's got some legitimate weapons to throw to in receiver Antonio Bryant, Davis and Johnson. Smith must show signs of progress, because this offseason the ***** acquired veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer, who will push the youngster from Day One of training camp.
Biggest splash of the offseason
It's not every day that a 1,500-yard rusher changes teams in the NFL, but the Colts clearly were prepared to let Edgerrin James seek his fortune on the open market this offseason, and the Cardinals were the team that had both a desperate need for his services and the cash to get a deal done. It's hard to imagine James producing the same kind of numbers in Arizona, where he's running behind a very iffy offensive line, that he did in Indianapolis. But almost anything will pass for improvement in the Cardinals' running game, which averaged only 71.1 yards per game last season -- almost 12 yards fewer than the league's next worst rushing team. If Arizona can give James some room to work with, he'll hang up some gaudy statistics. But how much new ground the running game covers this season will be up to the offensive line more than James.
Pay no attention to . . .
Seattle lost the Super Bowl, and we all know what that means, right? A very tough year is on the horizon. Or at least that's been the recent trend among Super Bowl losers, with Philadelphia, Carolina, Oakland, St. Louis and the Giants not even making the playoffs the year after their appearance in the Big Game. But the curse stops here. Seattle may not make it back to the Super Bowl, but the Seahawks will be there when the postseason opens in January. They've done a nice job of keeping the core of their team together with proven players at most key spots. They play in a division that offers them the mildest of competition, and they are playoff-experienced with an NFC-best three-year streak of postseason trips. Seattle will get a stiff challenge for NFC supremacy from the likes of Carolina and Washington, but the Seahawks won't come crashing down to earth in 2006.
Potential land mine
Seattle's biggest personnel loss of the offseason was All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson's departure for Minnesota in free agency. With the Seahawks being the league's most predominant left-handed team from a running game standpoint, Hutchinson's defection could be huge. Running back Shaun Alexander has made a killing running behind left tackle Walter Jones and Hutchinson in his career, and if Floyd "Pork Chop'' Womack can't do a serviceable job as Hutchinson's replacement, Seattle's vaunted running game could struggle to find its mojo in the first half of the season. The Seahawks' running threat sets up most of what Matt Hasselbeck does in the passing game, so if there's an imbalance there for long, the entire offense could suffer.
Re: NFC West Training Camp Preview
After reading this article, seems like the NFC WEST is a toss-up. Who will be the Cinderella team of the NFC WEST ?
Re: NFC West Training Camp Preview
People say this is the NFL's worst division. But Seattle, Arizona and the Rams could easily make the playoffs, and dont count out SF. They are getting underrated by a lot of people.